Does Marissa Mayer Make Yahoo Stock A Worthwhile Bet?

Granted, I am a numbers guy, so even asking whether a new CEO is enough to warrant buying a stock is a stretch for me. While quality leadership is certainly important, successful stock market investments require the numbers to work and no matter how great the CEO, they can’t magically make the numbers work all by themselves (unless you want the books to be cooked of course). Still, I am intrigued by Marissa Mayer’s hire as the new CEO at Yahoo (YHOO), even though the company is clearly not gaining relevancy on the Internet. A 1990’s darling, Yahoo has lost its lead in search (thanks to Mayer’s former employer, Google) and really only has a stronghold in a few areas of the web, such as email and fantasy sports.

Still, considering who has been occupying the corner office at Yahoo over the last decade, it is compelling that a tech person of Mayer’s caliber is now running the show. From 2001 to 2007 the company was headed by a movie studio exec (Terry Semel). From 2009 to 2011, they brought in a Silicon Valley veteran (Carol Bartz), but she previously ran Autodesk, a software company that sells products to help engineers design factories, buildings, and 3D animated characters. Is it really that surprising that Yahoo has been treading water for all these years?

Enter Marissa Mayer, Google’s 20th employee (and first woman engineer) who had been leading successful efforts in areas where Yahoo actually competes, like web search. If anyone can help reinvigorate Yahoo, it might just be her. But isn’t that taking a big leap of faith? Sure, but there is another factor, other than the CEO, that makes a bet on Yahoo shares at $16 each worth a look. The numbers.

Yahoo’s current market value is less than $20 billion. As of September 30th, the company’s stake in Yahoo Japan ($7.7 billion) and Alibaba ($8.1 billion) account for the majority of that valuation. Even if you deduct the tax liability that would be incurred if Yahoo were to monetize these stakes, the organic Yahoo operations are priced at just $10 billion. What do investors get for that $10 billion? To start, how about nearly $7 billion of net cash on the balance sheet (plenty for Mayer to begin a transformation)? That leaves a mere $3 billion valuation on Yahoo’s core operations, which generated free cash flow of $250 million in 2011. That is a low price even if the company doesn’t grow at all going forward.

Yahoo stock today looks to me like a call option on Marissa Mayer. As I said before, a CEO alone is not a good reason to buy a stock. But what if you have a unique change in leadership that could very well pay off in spades, and the meager public market valuation of the company basically affords you limited downside risk? The combination of those two factors makes the stock an interesting opportunity in my view. If Mayer, like her predecessors, fails to reinvigorate the company, then the shares likely stagnate here in the mid teens. However, if she succeeds, as her resume seems to suggest she could, there is a lot of upside to the story. It feels weird for me to say, but Yahoo at $16 with Carol Bartz running the show didn’t interest me one bit. With Mayer it’s a different story.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Yahoo at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time